Gay Comics: Young Avengers and Batwoman
With a new volume of Young Avengers around the corner, I wanted to go back and look at that series again. What I’ve always loved about that book was how writer Allan Heinberg managed to make all of its characters seem like real people. In 2006 GLAAD honored the series for its depiction of the relationship between male characters Wiccan and Hulkling. Similarly, GLAAD awarded Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III for their work on Batwoman in Detective Comics last year. I lent my copies of both series to Red Fuzzy Jesus’s Gabriel Hudson and this week we chatted about homosexuality in comics.
Before we get into the characters’ sexuality, how did you feel about the stories overall?
I like both story lines a lot. I do not have nearly as much experience reading comics as you so I was a little surprised by some of the storytelling. Mainly I was impressed by how well emotion and character development can be conveyed through very concise dialogue. I think in both instances there’s a lot of assumed back-story or familiarity with the characters that I lacked. But, without exposition, I was able to pick up and follow along pretty quickly.
Young Avengers I think is a bit less standalone than Batwoman, who is an almost brand new character at this point. She was created in 2006 in a comic called 52 and had almost no appearances between then and this run of Detective Comics. As Batwoman she’s kidnapped by a cult and stabbed, which is referenced in Detective Comics. Her appearances as Kate Kane in 52 were as the rich ex-girlfriend of Renee Montoya. The first scene was a fancy dress party so the initial impression she gave was as a lipstick lesbian. Still, her debut got a small bit of mainstream press attention (with headlines like “Holy Lesbian, Batman!”) and the rumor was always that DC Comics got cold feet about how to use a gay character and shelved her for three years.
Both stories allude to gay criticism by the public and press. There’s a brief discussion of changing Asgardian’s name to Wiccan to avoid providing the press with an automatic joke. [“Ass-Guardian”] There’s also disapproval of Kate at a ball when she wears a tuxedo. Her line about taking criticism in stride refers to her character and the inevitable criticism of having gay characters.
However, that criticism was slight at best. Focus on the Family and Laurie Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute made harsh criticisms about the “homosexual agenda” finding a new pop culture vessel. But otherwise there was not much hysteria. This is another sign that gay people have moved toward greater acceptance. A gay character provokes more of a yawn than an outcry. Still, the direct address of criticism acknowledges its potential. The authors seems to be recognizing that there are people out there that may have a problem but their scorn is not factoring heavily into their decision making.
Writer Greg Rucka made a point of underplaying her sexuality in interviews. One quote:
Yes, she’s a lesbian. She’s also a redhead. It is an element of her character. It is not her character.
Reading the first few issues of the story, I had the feeling, though, that he was almost over-underplaying her sexuality, like he had something to prove. He makes it a point to show guitars and music posters in her house, to display her menorah. Like he’s saying, “there’s more to this character, I swear!”
It could be that he was just delaying her sexuality… because it’s featured more prominently later on. I think the comparison to straight characters is fair here. Some comic book characters are immediately introduced as ladies’ men (Tony Stark) or awkward around girls (Peter Parker) but for most their romantic side stories develop later. It could just be that he was establishing other things about her character first the way other superheroes are established before their attractions are introduced. That doesn’t necessarily indicate cold feet about including a lesbian storyline, just a hesitance to kick it off by announcing her lesbianism, which is a good use of restraint.
As the second story arc comes along, Rucka brings her sexuality to the front, in the present with her dancing with Captain Sawyer and in the past with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. How did you feel about the flashback sequences with her at West Point?
I think it’s interesting how hard she tries to be a “legitimate” hero. By that, I mean, she doesn’t start out trying to help people with vigilante activities. She wants a career in the military. But, she is faced with the impossible choice of denying who she is and hurting others. This eventually leads her to vigilante justice because she cannot deny who she is for a career.
I think this part of the story rings particularly true. For the most part, arguments against DADT have been phrased as counterarguments toward attacks on gays that have limited direct applicability to the military. But there have been fewer affirmative arguments in favor of repeal. Lately, military leaders testifying before Congress and in other venues have argued in favor of honor and integrity; two qualities long associated with military service. It is unfair to ask military members to sneak around, to call their partners “roommates”, and live double lives. The choice between a life of service and a life of honor is an unfair choice to be imposed.
Similarly, outside the military, many LGBT people find themselves in the gay catch-22. One is simultaneously condemned for not participating in institutions from which there is exclusion. Often, anti-gay groups deride the gay community universally as promiscuous and insincere about relationships. They then turn around and use the purported promiscuity to support bans on same-sex marriage. It is contradictory to criticize people for not mirroring relationships they are told they cannot have.
Today’s younger gays see long-term, committed relationships as an option for them in adulthood previous generations did not perceive. So they are “free” to pursue the typical heterosexual norm. As a result, the stereotype of the back alley gay man is fading away. In the same way, had Kate seen a military career as an option she might have gone on to achieve a high rank and legitimate heroism. Likewise, it is unfair for the military, police, or Kate’s military father to criticize her vigilantism because she’s told legitimate service is not an option. Fortunately, her father eventually came around to support what she was trying to do.
Yet Kate, in putting on a mask every night, is quite literally hiding part of who she is from the world.
With good reason. If she didn’t wear a disguise she could easily be harmed in her regular life. Or worse, those close to her that lack super powers could be harmed as a way of getting back at her. So, there’s a practical concern behind wearing a mask.
Gay people still face something similar. As much progress as we’ve made, there are still many situations in which it is not safe to come out. And safe is not put in quotations there because it really is a question of harm. Gay people used to be asked whether they were out or not. Now, more commonly, they are asked how out they are. Meaning, there are varying degrees of disclosure. A person might be out among close friends but not out at work. A person might be out to some relatives but not others.
And there is real harm at stake. Losing a job or being denied a promotion is harm. And as tolerant as many people profess to be, there’s a more subtle exclusion from the old boys network or male bonding rituals in professional life that need to be considered. A lot of what contributes to career progress is collegial relationship building with superiors. Coming out can inhibit that. Also, gay people have to be concerned if their kids will be made fun of at school or if their parents will be embarrassed in their community. This is similar to the concern superheroes have for the well being of those around them.
Much has been made about the volume of gay men in white collar executive or artistic positions. Some have suggested that whatever predisposes one to be gay also endows them with the qualities necessary for professional work, or deprives them of whatever is necessary for manual labor. Others hypothesize that, because gay men do not have families to support, they are freer to focus on careers and climb the corporate ladder more quickly. I think a more reasonable conclusion might be that there are more gay men in white collar and arts-based professions because it is safer to be out in those lines of work. It is easier for a gay man to be out as an attorney than a construction worker.
Acceptance of gay people, while not universal, is a lot more common now than just a few years ago. For that reason, shame or social rejection is not enough to keep most in the closet. If one is rejected by friends and family there is enough of a supportive environment out there to minimize the hurt of rejection. What keeps many GLBT in the closet now, even partially, is real, measurable, demonstrable harm. It’s the same thing that keeps the mask on Batwoman. She’s out to some. Her dad knows her full identity. But, there’s still too much risk to be completely unmasked. As much progress as we’ve made, there is still a risk to being out that has to be calculated. And, for each gay person that calculation is varied and personal. That’s why I don’t like forced outings by the politically opportunistic. You never know what harm you may be causing to someone by revealing things about there identity. This is true even if you believe the world would be a better place if all gay people were out.
Turning to Young Avengers, we see the younger generation in Billy and Teddy’s relationship. Kate faced real adversity because of her sexuality, giving up a promising career as an Army cadet. Billy and Teddy come out to their friends and parents are immediately accepted. Do you think it’s more common now for teenagers to be able to admit their sexual orientation, or even be able to have it figured out by high school?
Oh absolutely! It’s a fairly new phenomenon but for many gay people adolescence now occurs during adolescence. For so long people typically didn’t realize they were gay, or couldn’t tell anyone until their late 20s. Now it is more and more common for young people to come out and for their friends and family to be supportive. When I read the scene in which Billy and Teddy discuss whether they should tell their parents about their super-heroism, and are subsequently affirmed in their relationship, it was moving.
I’ve had several conversations with gay friends in which there are two coming out stories, the real event and the fantasy. Often, the latter is more detailed. People really do dream about their family meeting their partners or their parents not just being tersely accepting but celebrating in their gay child finding love. I can’t help thinking that the author of this storyline has a lot of familiarity with the gay experience.
The best news is, the story had resonance because it’s actually happening. Parents often know their kids are gay before their kids tell them. And when they do, it’s a chance to build the relationship, not destroy it.
Sometimes GLAAD will give recognition for just showing up. Inclusion of a gay character is enough. But I think we’re to the point where there needs to be more. Giving characters dimensionality or mirroring actual changes in the gay community is praiseworthy. There’s a new gay narrative being written and it’s refreshing to see that narrative appearing in a medium marketed almost exclusively to young men.
Right. Comics tend to be filled with women in tight-fitting costumes posed in impossible contortions. I don’t know how much you ever played XBOX live games, but you can’t go five minutes without someone calling you a “faggot” over voice chat. It’s not the most progressive community and comics are filled with ads for video games.
That’s what makes it even braver. Immediately adjacent to the coming out scene between Teddy and Billy there’s an ad for Bod Body Spray that shows a cartoon guy with women swooning around him. I’ve always thought that gay rights would reach an apex when professional male athletes felt comfortable being gay. This is close to that. A publication, with very masculine advertising, has young gay men being close and expressing their love for each other.
I wasn’t as surprised by Batwoman. She’s a lesbian but she’s also hot with a skin tight costume and giant breasts. Lesbianism can easily be folded into a male fantasy world. Your average sorority girl can become a lesbian after a few shots but it’s mostly for the entertainment and pleasure of men. For two male characters to be gay in a male dominated medium is quite progressive. Acceptance has been a double-edged sword for gay men. On one hand, people are more comfortable with a gay man being around. But on the other, they require him to be sassy, funny, or flamboyant. It is for this reason I never considered Will & Grace a big step forward. It was gay men on prime time network TV but it was the type of gay court jester that’s easier to swallow. A heroic, competent, complex gay man is still a rare thing to see.
I should also note the dimensionality of these characters. I would similarly not be surprised if two gay men in a comic book flitted around fulfilling every type of swishy, prissy stereotype. But these young men are masculine. They literally engage in acts of heroism. They’re tough and they know how to fight. They just happen to be gay. The dimensionality within their individual characters and their relationship belies the usual treatment of gay men when straight men are present.
Yeah, both Billy and Teddy are drawn in sports jerseys at different times. It’s not like Kurt on Glee who’s always wearing ascots and talking about his skincare routine (though I think that show has done a good job with his relationship with his father).
A few weeks ago I saw a sketch on The Soup in which a woman wants to find a “real man” i.e., not gay. I know it’s just a silly sketch but it caused me to think inside, “I am a real man!” Gay men sometimes have to remind people that they can be fully capable leaders and gay. These characters do that well. They are guys. They just happen to love other guys.
And fight crime! Despite their secret origins Batwoman, Wiccan, and Hulkling are all typical superheroes, complete with tragic origins. The Batman books practically require a hero to have dead parents, and Billy was bullied as a kid, making him want to protect others. And many in our society still think homosexuality is a result/response to abuse.
That is an unfortunate misconception that has stuck around. Many profess a supposed link between childhood trauma-sexual or not-and being gay or lesbian. Opponents of gay rights use this to undergird arguments claiming gayness is not an identity trait but a defect. Returning to the topic of DADT, that has been an argument out there that the presence of same-sex attraction is evidence of damage making one disqualified from military service. It is surprising today that that kind of thinking still gets any traction.
However, gay people can have a good deal of trauma. Whether it’s getting bullied in school, familial rejection, or just a generalized feeling of being different, there are some common developmental experiences. At the beginning of the Young Avengers series I assumed the shape shifter might be gay because he talked about being different and wanting to pass as one of the guys in the locker room.
Superheroes also have a common theme of trauma in youth. Bruce Wayne’s parents are gunned down in front of him. Peter Parker’s uncle is killed by the assailant he could have stopped. And these traumas are instrumental in their new identities as superheroes. But, these traumas did not make them superheroes. A bite from a radioactive spider or a toxic spill or something else gives the hero his or her powers. The trauma usually inspires what they do with those powers. Batman, Spider-Man, and others want to fight crime because they are familiar with the pain it causes.
In the same way, childhood trauma doesn’t make a person gay. But it can shape how one handles it. Many gay people empathize with other outsiders and outcasts because they know the pain of rejection. In Billy’s story, he accepts his bullying and learns to live in quiet avoidance until he sees someone else being bullied. His decision to use his powers to help others comes after he recognizes his pain in another. Many gay people live similar lives until they see someone else trapped in a closet. It was an open secret for years that Rosie O’Donnell was gay. But she didn’t officially come out publicly until she identified with a pair of adoptive parents in Florida forced to live in the closet or risk losing their children. The trauma is not what makes the superhero. Likewise, the trauma is not the cause of gayness but it can lengthen the road to personal acceptance and inspire many to activism.